Monday, July 30, 2018


What is it about living in the woods? 

Leave No Trace is the latest in a genre that has sprouted up in recent years like poison ivy. I've seen several films like it, and I've written about a few right here. It's rather fascinating to me that actors as diverse as Ellen Page and John Krasinski have all found themselves in woodland settings, living rough, and probably stinking to high heaven.   

Some of these movies are interesting. They have  a nice, green look, and though they all generally spell out the same shopworn anti-establishment theme, they're watchable. Leave No Trace is better than most.

If you haven't seen it, let's see if I can pull it out of the brush. 

Will, a man in his late 30s, and his teen daughter have been living in the wild for a long time. He seems well-suited to the environment, and she follows his example, creating tasty meals out of mushrooms  and listening to his advice on how to roam the woods undetected. You don't see many father-daughter combos working together so well in movies. But the authorities, who don't cotton to folks living on public property, eventually drag them back into society.

So Will and his daughter find themselves in a new environment. He gets a job harvesting Christmas trees; she befriends a local kid who takes care of rabbits. They go through the motions, and even attend a church service, but still sleep outside at night, lying under blankets in the front yard of their small ranch home.

The tensions of living without freedom start to get to the father, however. We see it on his face, as if the thought of having a roof over his head is like wearing a straitjacket.

The daughter seems more flexible. She likes hanging out with her new friends, learning to ride a bicycle, and petting rabbits at the 4-H club. She could get used to this new life.

You can see the rest of the story coming. He wants to get back into the wilderness and be free. She doesn't mind living indoors. Hell, it's nice to take a bath. They argue a bit, yet, she has an incredible fondness for her dad. Before you know it, they're back on the road, hitching rides with friendly truckers and getting as far from civilization as possible. 

As predictable as some of this may sound, it works. Ben Foster is tremendous as the father, all grimaces and private angst. You really get a sense that society is like sandpaper on his skin. He doesn't say much, he does it all with his face and body language.

Every time someone is kind to him, Will  looks on with suspicion and apprehension. We don't know exactly what made  him this way, but he's obviously suffered some emotional trauma.

The rest of the story moves along smoothly, hypnotically. The only cliche is when the daughter finds her father's scrapbook, and notices a clipped newspaper article about ex marines struggling to adjust to civilian life. Why does a guy who doesn't even want a toilet feel the need to carry a scrapbook?

The ending, too, is a bit cute. The film was written and directed by women, and the message seems to be that women are caring nurturers and men are just sad idiots. Still, there's something about Leave No Trace that sticks to you like a burr on corduroy. It's hard to forget.

I especially liked the people we meet along the way. The truckers, the cops, the kindly folks who take the duo in at a trailer park, all seem down to Earth and just a tad melancholy. They aren't so different from us, the daughter explains at one point. That's why Foster seems  doomed - everyone he meets is kind to him, yet he can't stand to look at them.

The daughter is played by  Thomasin McKenzie.  She's as good as Foster. If she never does anything else, she has this outstanding performance on her resume. As a teen girl plucked out of the woods and ushered into a world of snapchat and instagram and endless bureaucracy, she's marvelous. How did the casting agency ever find a girl totally void of modern day guile and self-consciousness?

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